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Food & Keeping it Local in Israel

It feels so nice, now that the book is done, and we await copy editing and all the other fun stuff that comes with putting a book out into the world, for Gidon and I to get back to our adventures. There are still so many parts of Israel and so many aspects that I am not familiar with.

This past weekend, Gidon and I went to visit Nir Banim, 32 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Gaza. It is early spring in Israel and it's still been raining on and off. The ground was still a bit muddy but the fields were bright green.

Nir Banim was founded in 1954 and is part of the Be'er Tuvia Regional Council, which is one of Israel's 54 regional councils. Being that Israel is too small to have "states" or "provinces", there are regional councils, municipalities, and local councils. Nir Banim has about 731 residents and is a moshav (cooperative agricultural community). As we strolled around the farm, we saw olive, plum, peach and almond trees, but the most famous crop there is the artichokes.

Gidon lived and breathed agriculture, animal husbandry, and farming for many years of his life and being on a farm is rejuvenating. You can take the farmer off the farm but you can't take the farm out of the farmer. I must admit that being around so much greenery and quiet, just hearing the wind in the branches of the olive trees was relaxing to me too.

As a Californian, I always grew up eating artichokes, so to me, they are delicious, but not exotic. On our tour, Gidon and I learned that artichokes were and are a common food for Sephardic Jews but they were new to the Ashkenazi's from Europe.

I had to ask - how come, in California, artichokes are available year-round but in Israel, they are, like many other fruits and vegetables, only available seasonally?

Our guide, Noam, of Noam's Artichokes, explained that actually, artichokes require a particular environment and season to grow and that the reason that we have not just artichokes but so many fruits and vegetables all year long in the United States is that large food corporations have their farms all over the place and ship the food to us over long distances. Duh. I hadn't thought about that but it makes sense.

The source of our artichokes in California is Castroville, near Monterey, which is nicknamed "The Artichoke Capital of the World". Turns out that Ocean Mist Farms, a large food corporation owns the artichoke land in Castroville, but also farms their artichokes (and many other vegetables) in Mexico and in Oregon - thus they are available year-round. Castroville is also the home of the California Artichoke Festival and crowned its first Artichoke Queen, Mrs. Sally DeSante Hebert, in 1961.

Sometimes I get a little disappointed that I can only find artichokes, brussel sprouts or limes in Israel but once a year, when they are in season. But on the other hand, when a fruit or veg is fresh, in season and grown locally, everybody benefits, including the environment. It feels good to support farming in Israel and to anticipate whatever is coming into season next.

Gidon and I head to the Shuk Har Carmel in Tel Aviv monthly, and fill our cart with the freshest fruit and produce - not to mention fish and cheese! - that we can find. Recently, I got a copy of Adeena Sussman's Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen and let me tell you, my copy is already beaten up from wear! It's one of my favorite cookbooks ever, and I include the Silver Palate on that list.

There is an old saying about Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us, they lost, now we eat." Food is a priority in Israel, so it seems to me. The planning, shopping, cooking, serving and discussion of food is a national obsession. Don't even get me started about the hummus wars. I am lucky to have a close friend, Ruth Yudekovitz, who is the hostess and cook extraordinaire, behind Shuk and Cook, which is the amazing experience of exploring the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem, choosing fresh ingredients and then returning to Ruth's home in Abu Tor and enjoying the haul with wine and in good company. Ruth books her groups months out.

Before we left, Gidon and I bought a box of artichokes; green and heavy with the meat. We returned home, our shoes covered with mud and with the fragrance of the cilantro greenhouse still surrounding us. Next, we plan to go to a moshav not too far from Nir Banim, Bitzaron, where, we hear, they farm and raise, among other things - buffalo that were flown in from Italy. Buffalo mozzarella, here we come!


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